Speaking Konglish

Speaking Konglish

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Life changes in the ordinary instant

My brother, Davey

This is a true story.

Three weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, my brother Dave and I woke up after a long night out in Seoul. It had been a good one: we had a few beers in a Family Mart and told each other riddles, then met up with some Canadian friends for ice skating and galbi (natch). We ended up staying up til dawn, thumbing through an old copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my friend Woody’s rooftop apartment.

Throughout the night, my swarthy man friends had peer-pressured my brother into putting away a fair amount of soju, despite his ignorance of this Korean moonshine’s dark side. (There’s a reason why my friends and I call it “sonoju.”) He woke up groaning, and I asked him the next day with a knowing smile, “How d’ya feel after all that soju, champ?”

"I feel like I have a brain tumor," he said, rubbing his forehead.

We thought this was a really funny joke.

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, my brother and I were sitting at my favorite coffeeshop, trading stories with my new coworker, James. It was James’ first day on the job. An art school grad, he was regaling us with hilarious tales of his pre-Korea days as a server of court papers in Montana, getting shot at by deadbeat dads, when Dave’s trademark gaze of bemused absorption began to twist into an expression I couldn’t recognize. His laugh eddied out into a faint, cackling sigh. His head cocked to the side. I watched as a small silvery line of saliva trickled out of the corner of his mouth and down into his lap.

"That’s not funny," I thought to myself.

"Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant," Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking. In the next instant my brother was blue. We thought he was choking at first. We shoved his shirt up, beat at his chest, kicked tables out of the way, tried and failed and tried and failed to get him into a chair so that we could gain more leverage on whatever was preventing him from breathing.

It was hours later when I realized that he had eaten nothing at our lunch together. We were fighting a phantom in his chest that did not exist. He was just sipping a latte when the lights went out.

James and I knew we were failing to save him. I kept asking, “Is someone coming?” Yoon, one of the coffeeshop’s owners and a family friend, had dialed for the ambulance, but the moments were ticking away and still no sirens came barreling down this busy stretch of Moremi-ro. I reminded myself never to choke in Korea.

Dave’s eyes rolled back in his head. His body went limp. His teeth seemed wired shut. We couldn’t clear his throat. The other women in the coffeeshop were shouting, but the sound was muffled, as if it were being transmitted through water. I thought miserably, “My mom is going to be so upset with me.”

Then suddenly, Dave gasped. The color flowed back into his face, flames of purple and red coming in first at the corners, then moving towards the center. We heard the rush of air in his throat as it whistled through his still-clenched teeth.

One of the women from the coffeeshop had found a nurse nearby. She appeared at his side, speaking to him rapidly in Korean, wielding a pen that I knew she had planned to use to puncture his throat.

Hangumal obsoyo, I gasped at her, waving the weapon away. He can’t speak Korean.

She turned the force of her speech on me like a fire hydrant in a way that only Korean ajumas can, and I shook my head. Hangumal chal motayo, I said. I can’t speak Korean well. Chwesong hamnida. I’m sorry.

Dave opened his eyes, mismatched as always, one watery and green, one watery and hazel. He looked up at me, saw the ring of concerned middle-aged women around him, saw the chairs with their legs in the air.

"Hi, Davey," I said.

He pushed himself into a seated position. We tried to get him to put his back against the bench along the wall, but he wouldn’t move. We tried to get him to lie along the bench, but he wouldn’t move. I didn’t want him to fall over and hit his head. So I stood behind him and he leaned into my legs.

"I’m up here," I told him, a few times, in case he forgot.

The ambulance came, and with it, my Korean-Australian coworker Phillip. The two emergency medical technicians began to ask questions in Korean, to Yoon, to me, to Davey.

"Do you know what year it is?" Phillip asked. "Do you know who the President is?"

Dave looked at me with a wounded smirk, as if to say, “Of course I do. Why would you ask?”

"Just talk to us, Davey." I said. "Who are you?"


"Who am I?"

"You’re Ryan."

"What year is it?"


The smirk returned.

"Where’s my phone?"

"Just answer the questions, please," said Phillip, still wearing his no-nonsense teacher’s demeanor, like a jacket he’d forgotten to take off inside.

"It’s two thousand…ten."

A pause as Phillip consulted with the EMTs.

"They think he should be taken to the hospital."

"That’s a tough question for me these days, too," I told him as we climbed into the ambulance.


Misun and I stood in front of a black and white photo of my brother’s brain. As the only English-speaking staff member on call in the emergency room of Ehwa Women’s University Hospital in Mokdong, it fell to Misun, a petite intern my age, to explain to the waygukin what was happening to them. To him.

"I think he has a brain tumor," she said, in a casual tone of voice, still staring at the photo, as if we were watching the weather and she was simply voicing her belief that a blizzard was on the way.

"Really," I said.

"Yeah. That’s kind of what it looks like. We think he had a seizure caused by a hemorrhage, caused by a small mass in his brain."

I walked to the side of Dave’s bed, unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to sit down, but then, I hadn’t been asked to sit down. There had been no General Hospital moment.

I held his hand.

"I’m so sorry this is happening to you," I said. "You’re my favorite brother."

"You’re my favorite sister," he said.

It was of course, a joke. There are only two of us.

"But, you’ve survived a lot of things in your time," I said. And I knew he had. Knew about injuries that many other people didn’t know about, and how they came to leave their scars. Knew his personality, which caused him to hurl himself off ledges and down stair railings for the sake of art. My brother’s a skateboarder and a filmmaker. He’ll work diligently for a day to film one successful trick. It happens, he says, about 1% of the time.

"Yeah, I have," he said.

"What are you thinking?" I asked him.

"It’s all pretty far out."

This is what he says, he told me, when he doesn’t know what else to say.


People came and went. Zac, my boss, came to the hospital with his pregnant wife, Sunny, who speaks no English but squeezed my hand while Zac filled out some paperwork. My friend Lee, co-owner of the coffeeshop and husband of Yoon, came to the hospital and helped to fill out more paperwork. Dave was moved upstairs, to a six-person room. Zac returned to the hospital, took me to get some pajamas, picked up some pizza for David, and translated our circumstances for the nurses on duty. Yoon came to the hospital and brought a bag of oranges, a carton of milk, a towel, and some soap. I slept by Dave’s bed that night. I gave half of the oranges away.

Davey, night 1


Three days later, we were sitting in Dave’s hospital bed, squeezed in together behind a sheet that we had drawn around his small 4X8 corner of the room. His only illusion of privacy in a country where the right to privacy does not exist.

We couldn’t take it anymore. The days of not knowing what Dave’s real diagnosis was or when we could go home to find out, as the Korean doctors advised. Of not knowing whether his insurance would cover the costs of his tests, his hospital stay, his plane ticket back to the States. Of not knowing what the nurses were saying to us, where to empty the plastic pee jug or when we’d see the doctor again. It was getting to us.

Chwesong hamnida — hangumal chal motayo, I’d say. Chigum, pigo neo. Creoso, hangumal motayo. Murukeyseyo. I’m sorry, I can’t speak Korean well. And right now, I’m tired, so I can’t speak it at all. I can’t understand you. I’m sorry.

The long-distance phone calls came at all hours. The deliveries of kimchi and fish with heads and tails, swimming in small white bowls on his hospital tray, came three times a day, but only for Davey. It was getting to us. The cold noodles doused in blood-red gochujang in the basement cafeteria. The room so hot I’d nicknamed it “The Boiler Room.” The sad eyes of the wives of Dave’s Korean roommates. Their scandalized and bemused stares as Dave shuffled around the room without the prerequisite Korean sandals on, a golden-haired vision in tattoos and navy blue boxers. It was getting to us. And above all, the constant sound of the TV at the edge of Dave’s bed, which was switched on and cranked up when the lights came on at 7:30am, and did not stop belching out its soap opera and talk show noise until midnight. It was getting to us. God help the terrorists if the guys at Gitmo ever discover Paradise Ranch.

Korean comfort food … is not always so comforting

It was about 11:30 at night. My friends had gone home for the evening. My mother and father were taking over the next shift of answering phone calls from insurance companies, doctors and other concerned parties. I propped open a laptop, stuck an earbud in one ear, handed one to Dave, and jammed toilet paper in my other ear.

A way out west there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least, the was the handle his lovin’ parents gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself The Dude.

You would think that whenever my brother and I had a moment of silence we would have filled it with all of our secrets. Told each other how much we loved each other, and how sorry we were for the times when we fought. You’d think I would have told him how sorry I was about almost drowning him when we were kids, by dangling him off the ledge separating the shallow end from the deep end of the pool, amazed by my own power. Talked about our favorite books, our worst regrets. Meditated or prayed or something. But the thing is, we’d already told each other our secrets. We’d already said I love you, dude every night that he’d been in South Korea, where he had arranged to live with me for a month between traveling through China and Australia. He’d just finished his new favorite book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and we’d been talking about it for days, because I gave it to him and he had brought me a new Milan Kundera novel in return. We’d spent the previous Sunday at a Zen temple drinking tea with monks together. This is a true story. We knew, we know, that we have the kind of relationship that most siblings want, because in our minds, I think we still believe that we’re all we’ve got. We knew, we know how much there is to lose.

So, we didn’t talk about it. We just sat together, sharing my headphones, and resumed a conversation we’d been having a few days before over lunch, about whether The Big Lebowski really was a Christ allegory, and if so, who exactly did Karl Hungus represent.

It occurs to me now that many of us live our lives like this, in a crowded room filled with unhappy, suffering people, with a headphone in one ear and a makeshift earplug stuffed in the other. We spend our days passing the time with philosophical arguments from behind a thin sheet concealing the real truth. You can hear faintly that things are unfolding out there, and you sense that if you just flicked the lights on and pulled open the curtain, you’d know for certain that the only thing on the other side was other living beings, suffering the way you are. And then you’d be prompted to give them half your oranges and try to speak their language. But this is exhausting. It gets to you. So you pull the sheet closed again and turn up the volume. We live our lives like this.

But some of us, well, we get a wake up call the next morning, whether we’re ready or not.


More people came and went. Everyone. Ex-pat friends who knew how far we were from home, and Korean friends who could only empathize with what that meant. It would be a cliche to say this was humbling, but it would be true. Dawn came and took me out for chuatang, fish soup. Brooke came and took me out for haemuljuk, seafood porridge. Derek brought two gallons of milk and a giant bag of Oreos. Erin brought green grapes and deodorant. Josh brought a skateboarding magazine from the foreign book store in Itaewon. Megan blew in from a week in Japan, came straight from the airport with cheesecake from Tokyo. Jess called on her way home from Malaysia. Woody called from beside his motorcycle, standing by the side of the road. Irene came with rice cakes, Yoon with more pastries.

Top: Dionysian dudery. Bottom: Seeing double with Josh and Davey.

Finally, Chrissy, who had planned to spend her Lunar New Year vacation with us in Korea, flew in on the red-eye, all the way from sunny Taipei. For two days, she never left my side, and would accept no apologies for the way things had turned out. She would say simply that she loved us, and go downstairs to make photocopies of his hospital receipts or grab another bottle of water. We went together to buy Dave blueberry ice cream sandwiches and ate them by his bed.

Lee and Yoon came again too, many times, and when the nurses bustled in to insist that we go downstairs and pay the nearly four thousand dollars on Dave’s running tab, these adopted parents of mine tried diligently to understand my explanation of the American insurance system, and to translate. They could not. After all, Americans barely understand our insurance system ourselves. And they are Koreans, and Koreans have different problems. So the nurses resigned themselves, as we did, to the last long wait in the dark.


It took me five days, fifteen hours and the help of many people to get Dave out of the hospital. His incredible travel insurance company, Medex, booked us two first-class tickets for Tuesday at 10am and wired four thousand dollars to the hospital. At 5am that morning, I was still sitting in the Ehwa emergency room, waiting for their fax to come in so I would be given my brother’s final antiseizure medications and a “fit to fly” form for the airlines. I had sent Yoon home six hours ago. Chrissy had fallen asleep next to Dave’s bed in my place. I wanted to be here in the ER alone. Because after five days and fifteen hours, I had started to forget what it was like to be in the midst of a real emergency, and I wanted to remember.

I don’t know how I forgot. I knew so many new things. I knew the hospital’s ins and outs now, knew where to get coffee and wi-fi reception, knew about the international clinic on the 2nd floor with the English-speaking secretary, knew which five bus lines dropped off at the front door of the hospital. I knew now that this hospital would not accept a letter of guarantee from any foreign insurance company, would not even process a credit card number without a physical card, would essentially refuse to be paid — and to let my brother go — unless the money was sent directly to their bank account.

I knew by sight the girl with the shaved head whose boyfriend pushed her up and down the hallway on her wheeled IV pole, knew that no Korean woman would ever have her locks shorn by choice. I knew that some elevators would skip the 10th floor and go straight to the 11th, forcing me to walk through the pediatric ward to the stairs, past babies in cribs with dangling bags of liquid above them instead of twinkling toy mobiles. I knew the stink in the stairwell was from the cigarettes of terrified parents. And so I knew that things were bad all over, and not just for us. In fact, I had started to feel quite lucky. We were going home to our own country, first class, together, all expenses paid. Dave had almost died, and now he was alive and alert and eating Oreos. You only land a trick like that maybe 1% of the time.

But we were going home so my brother’s American doctors could find out whether the monster that almost killed him would come back to finish the job, and we are now too old for me to tell him no one’s there in the closet. And I wanted to remember this now because it seemed like a good time to let it keep me awake. 

So I sat on my phone amid eight other people on phones, waiting for the interpreter to pick up the line, and I watched the late night crowd come in.

Five people, two phones, two languages, and still no fax at 5am

The drunken dazed teenagers in Chuck Taylors, the new parents with their tiny heaving bundles, the extended families of the elderly, all blundered past me blindly as if sleepwalking. For the first time in five days, no one gave me and my foreign face a second look, so focused were they on their own problems, even when I let a tear or a sniffle slip out, and this was a good thing. Because I wanted to remember for myself, about the emergency, about the bad dreams I’d been having about the day in the coffeeshop every night, about how everything was different now, but I did not want anyone to see me remembering. So I hid among the other emergencies where no one would notice another girl crying. Even if she was not Korean.

Spoiler alert: we made it onto the plane. Stay tuned for how this one turns out…

  1. speakingkonglish posted this